Speaking at a conference? Read these tips first


Recently, I was asked to present my top public speaking tips for a group of women leaders. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and one that I teach a number of groups, from medical students to faculty.

Dr. Vineet Arora

Dr. Vineet Arora

I also benefited from just returning from the Harvard Macy Educators Course, where Victoria Brazil, MD, an experienced emergency medicine physician from Australia, provided her top tips. Here is a mash-up of the top tips to think about for any of the speakers out there among us – with a few shout-outs for the ladies out there. Please add your own!

The Dos

  • Do project power: Stand tall with a relaxed stance and shoulders back – posture is everything. This is especially important for women, who may tend to shrink their bodies, or anyone who is short. A powerful messenger is just as important as the power of the message. The same also applies to sitting down, especially if you are on a panel. Do not look like you are falling into the table.
  • Do look up: Think about addressing the people in the back, not in the front row. This looks better in photos as well since you are appealing to the large audience and not the front row. Dr. Brazil’s tip came from Cate Blanchett who said that before she gives talks, she literally and physically advises “picking up your crown and put it on your head.” Not only will you feel better, you will look it too.
  • Do pause strategically: The human brain needs rest to process what you are about to say. You can ask people to “think of a time” and take a pause. Or “I want you to all think about what I just said for one moment.” And TAKE a moment. But think about Emma’s pause during the March For Your Lives. Pauses are powerful and serve as a way to cement what you are saying for even the most critical crowd. Think about when anyone on their phone pauses, even if you’re on a boring conference call others will wake up and wonder what is going on and are now engaged in the talk.
  • Do strategically summarize: Before you end, or in between important sections, say the following: “There are three main things you can do.” Even if someone fell asleep, they will wake up to take note. It’s a way to get folks’ attention back. There is nothing like challenging others to do something.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t start with an apology for “not being an expert”: Or whatever you are thinking about apologizing for. The voice in your head does not need to be broadcast to others. Just say thank you after you are introduced, and launch in. Someone has asked you to talk, so bring your own unique expertise and don’t start with undermining yourself!
  • Don’t use your slides as a crutch: Make your audience look at you and not your slides. That means at times, you may be talking and your slides will not be moving. Other times, if you are starting with a story, maybe there is no slide behind you and the screen is blacked out. Some of the most powerful moments in a talk are when slides are not being used.
  • Don’t stand behind the podium if you can help it. This means ask for a wireless microphone. Most podiums will overwhelm you. If you have to use a podium, go back to the posture in the “dos.” One year, I had a leg injury and definitely used the podium, so obviously there may be times you need to use a podium; even then, try as hard as possible to make sure you are seen.
  • Don’t engage grandstanders during Q&A: Invariably, you will get someone who stands up and goes into a long comment that is not a question to hear themselves speak. Insert yourself, say “thank you” and take the next question. If there is not a next question, you can add, “Before I forget, I want to share another question I am often asked which may be of help to you.” Then, answer your own question. You get the final word this way!

Happy speaking! I look forward to seeing you in warmer weather during the spring conference season.

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